Can city-county split be healed? It's a great debate
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 20, 2010 - The question of how to end the longtime divorce between St. Louis and St. Louis County won't be on the ballot next month, but the election results could spark discussions for some sort of governmental combination.
That's the view of former St. Louis County Supervisor Gene McNary, who was one of three panelists talking about city-county relations in a debate at Washington University Tuesday night.
If Proposition A, which could end the St. Louis city earnings tax, wins voter approval statewide, McNary said it could force a close look at duplication of governmental services in the area, at a time when the public can't afford to pay for more government than it needs.
"That may be the breaking point," McNary said of the possibility of the city losing about $140 million a year in earnings tax receipts, or a third of its budget. "I don't know how you replace that revenue source.
"If that's the case, that may not be all bad. That's going to bring people to their senses and say, 'We have to do something about this. We have got to have a plan. We can't hold on to the status quo.'"
Joining McNary were Terry Jones, political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who has studied the fragmentation of local government, and longtime civic leader George H. "Bert" Walker III, who spearheaded the drive to bring home rule to the city.
Recapping efforts to close the rift between city and county since they split in 1876, the panelists talked about many attempts, including a statewide amendment in 1930, a borough plan in the 1960s and the board of freeholders in the 1980s.
All failed, for one reason or another, and to Jones, the lesson to be learned is a simple one:
"Don't try to do too much. Every attempt to do sweeping reform since the great divorce in 1876 has been a failure."
Instead, he said, the region should continue the kinds of successful results it has achieved in areas such as the Zoo-Museum District, the Metropolitan Sewer District, the Convention and Visitors Commission and others.
"The metaphor I'm most fond of using," Jones said, "is don't get married -- just date a little."
Walker talked of how powerful a merger of the city and county would be, creating a city with 1.35 million people, which would be the seventh-largest in the nation. Such an entity would be strong enough to attract businesses and at the same time would eliminate the competition that now exists, where the city and the county fight over luring the same sources of tax revenue.
He said that in places like Indianapolis, where such a merger has succeeded, property taxes have declined in both the city and the county that it joined.
The other method of bringing the city and county together -- having the city rejoin the county as one of the 90-plus municipalities it has now -- was dismissed by McNary as a waste of time.
"I'm against re-entry," he said, "and I don't favor a merger until I see a plan."
He recalled the discord that the freeholders plan prompted, when efforts to reduce the number of cities in the county by combining many of them let long-smoldering rivalries break out into full-blown flames.
"Why is Charlack included and Moline Acres is not," he said, citing one of the many points of discord.
When he noted that a possible combination of Ladue and Frontenac also was criticized, Jones commented, "No one wants to marry down," without defining which of the cities would be doing so.
Returning to the opportunity he thinks may be posed by the earnings tax question on the Nov. 2 ballot, McNary said that the county's many municipalities and what he called the city's bloated government may need some shock therapy to come to grips with the need to downsize. Taxpayers will also have to learn what can be done to cut the cost of government.
"There are so many uncertainties," he said. "You can't expect people to just buy in not knowing what the effect will be on them and their families."
But Jones cautioned that the estimated savings of combining governments usually ends up being far greater than what actually occurs.
"These estimates of savings are not unlike the multiplier effect of having an event in your area," he said. "They tend to err on the high side. When you put two bureaucracies together, they tend to stay the same size rather than diminish. It could happen, but it usually doesn't happen."
Walker agreed with the need for support to be built carefully before anything on healing the split between city and county goes before voters.
"We have to have grassroots support and a greater understanding of the problems of the city," he said. "If people were to focus on it, the benefits would become immediately obvious. But it can't come from the top down; it has to come from the bottom up.
"I think we have to move forward on this subject -- not today, not tomorrow, but within a couple of years."
The debate was the inaugural event in a series of Great Debates to be sponsored by the St. Louis Urban Corps.